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Sigil Scions (for Pathfinder 1st Ed)

I’ve been meaning to finish this for more than two years, as I began it back when I worked at Paizo. I meant to put it up yesterday, but it took longer than the time I had allotted for blogging, so you get a triple-sized post today instead!

Tithain kept her eyes open and one hand resting easily on the longsword at her hip as she walked alongside Queen Aerigold, who was clearly keeping her attention on the crowds that had gathered to welcome their new monarch. The Queen had insisted she get a new tabard—a bright green silken thing with gold thread and the shining sun-and-tree symbol of the Queen’s Trusted on it—but beneath that Tithain had on the same utilitarian plate armor she’d worn at the Battle of Seven Crowns, all those years ago.

A glint caught Tithain’s eye, and she instinctive stepped between its source and her beloved lady. As a bolt shot out of the crowd, Tithain raised a gauntleted hand and felt the power of her family’s Sigil flow through her, its bright blue lines visible even through the steel protecting her. The arrow slammed into her and shattered, the majority of its force expended against her defensive ward.

A dozen pale-skinned men in the crowd threw off cloaks, reveling the red-and-black garb of Kakkain cultists, and drew weapons as the cityfolk began to cry out and flee from them.

One of the broadest of the men, his eyes glittering with the flickering light of a Fel Embraced, pointed a thorned mace at her and cried out in the echoing voice of those with one foot already firmly planted in Hell.

“She’s a Scion of the Shield Sigil! Kill her first, then the peace-lover queen will fall!”

Sometimes, you want to add something to a campaign that isn’t anchored in class, background, ancestry, or other standard game categories. Sometimes, you just want to be able to slap a whole new power source on characters, and see what fun evolves from it.

Sigil Scions are such a concept.

Sigil Scions have a powerful, mystic source of capability. That might be from their position within an organization, the mark of a god, the collective will of those they defend, an asteroid radiating them with runic power–whatever. The easiest way to add Sigil Scions to a game is to just decide on a narrative framework (anything from ancient heroes reincarnated or cheat codes given to modern characters when they are sent to a fantasy world), and let each player build their own sigil from there. Sigil scions are a pure power-up for characters (especially monks… ), but not as much as being gestalt characters.

(Art by warmtail)

Sigil Power

Select any one bloodrager bloodline, cleric domain, inquisitor inquisition, sorcerer bloodline, warpriest blessing, or wizard specialization. You cannot select a specific option you already have, nor later take the specific option you select here if you gain the appropriate class feature to do so (for example, if you select the cleric healing domain, and later gain cleric domains through some other class, you could not take the healing domain again.)

You gain the abilities of the selected class feature, using your total character level as your level in the relevant class. You do not gain any ability not expressly granted by the selection (so taking the abjuration wizard specialist schools does not give you the ability to prepare spells just because the resistance ability is tied to when you prepare spells). However, you can apply any option from the selected class feature to relevant options gained from other classes (so if you are a druid, and you select the healing domain, you can apply the healer’s blessing ability to your druidic cure spells).

When you first gain sigil power, select one ability modifier. Any time your sigil powers refer to an ability score or modifier (such as to determine save DCs or uses per day), you use the selected ability.

Sigil Spells

Sigil Scions gain spells as they grow in power.

At 1st level, you select three specific class spell lists, which you note down. When you gain Sigil Spells, they must come from these three spell lists. You cannot select spells lists from a prestige class, or a class that gains multiple spell lists (ie you cannot select the hunter class spell list, as it is made of the druid and ranger class spell lists). If a spell list comes from a class with requirements for alignment, background, or armor/equipment restrictions (such as druid or paladin), you must meet those restrictions.

Each Sigil Spell you select is noted as being from one of these three lists (even if it on multiple class lists, you must assign it to just one of your three), and follows the general rules for spellcasting from that class (such as Arcane Spell Failure), though you never need to prepare spells in advance (see below). When you cast these spells you do so as if you were a member of the selected class (Sigil Spells are normal spells, not spell-like abilities).

When you first choose Sigil Spells, You may choose to gain Eschew Materials as a bonus feat, and for all of your Sigil Spells to automatically be Still Spells (thus ignoring Arcane Spell Failure). If you do this, your Sigil Spell caster level is equal to half your character level (at 1st level, your CL is 0.5 – all CL-influenced values are halved, rounding down).

Sigil Spells can be used to meet prerequisites for feats and item creation, but not archetypes or prestige classes.

When you first gain Sigil Spells, you select three 0-level spells known. In addition to 0-level spells from your three class spell lists, you may also choose from the following 0-level spells: detect magic, guidance, light, mage hand, read magic, stabilize. You can assign these to any of your three class lists, even if they do not normally have these spell on that list.

At 2nd level, your total spells known increases to four, and the maximum spell level you can select from goes from 0-level to 1st level. You can select any one 1st level spell from the three spell lists you choose as your Sigil Spell lists to bring you spells known up to your new maximum. You also gain one spell slot you can use to cast any 1st-level or higher spell you know. Your spell slots are restored once per day at a set time (normally dawn) as long as you are not fatigued or exhausted.

As you gain in character level, you gain additional spells known and can select higher-level spells. You spell slots are used to cast any of your 1st-level or higher spells. Thus a 6th level Sigil Scion knows five spells (three of which are 0 level, one 1st-level, and one 1st or 2nd level) and has two spells slots (which can be used to cast any 1st or 2nd level spell the Scion knows). Each time you gain a new level, you can change one spell known to another spell of the same level from one of your three class lists.

When you first gain sigil power, select one ability modifier. Any time your sigil powers refer to an ability score or modifier (such as to determine save DCs or uses per day), you use the selected ability. If a spell references an ability score of yours to determine how it works (such as spiritual weapon allowing you to add your Wisdom bonus to attack rolls with it), you can also switch that to your selected ability.

As you gain levels, your total spells known and the maximum level of the spells you know increase, as shown on Table: Sigil Spells, below.

Table: Sigil Spells

1st           Three spells known (max level 0), Zero slots

2nd-3rd      Four spells known (max level 1), One slot

4th-5th      Four spells known (max level 1), Two slots

6th-7th      Five spells known (max level 2), Two slots

8th-9th      Five spells known (max level 2), Three slots

10th-11th                       Six spells known (max level 3), Three slots

12th-13th                       Six spells known (max level 3), Four slots

14th-15th                       Seven spells known (max level 3), Four slots

16th-17th                       Eight spells known (max level 3), Four slots

18th-19th                       Nine spells known (max level 4), Five slots

20th             Ten spells known (max level 4), Five slots

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Starfinder HyperMall: GoTo

The HyperMall is an InfoSphere Commerce company that sells extremely cheap, but modestly useful, items in bulk to vending companies on worlds with Hyperspace travel. The HyperMall has literally hundreds of millions of items available for order, so many travelers enjoy downloading their virtual catalog and clicking through it on long, dull hyperspace trips.

HyperMall items are all Level 0 minor items that cost 1 credit (or you can buy 120 of them for 100 credits), and have negligible bulk unless noted otherwise. However, crafting any HyperMall item takes 10 UPBs… a fact that frustrates armchair economists and bespoke crafters. HyperMall items are not robust enough to have a major effect on gameplay. Essentially, none of these items have any Strength, damage, hardness, HP, or game-mechanical effect.

(Art by artbase)

GoTo (Technological item): A GoTo is among the most popular brand-name of Smart Data Compilers. By itself, it largely does nothing (though many come with games and basic local InfoSphere access). However, a GoTo can be synced to a theoretically-infinite number of other devices you own and have on your person, so compile and organize the data they offer. Most users begin by syncing their comm links, and then add more and more items as they enjoy the convenience.
Syncing an item to a GoTo takes 10 minutes, root access to the device to be added, and requires a Computers check with a DC equal to 5 + double the number of items already synced. If you fail this check by 5 or more, the new item IS synced, but a randomly selected previously synced item is removed from sync without any notification. Generally you don’t realize an item is removed from sync until you try to use it.
A GoTo can be placed in an armor upgrade slot, be added to any head/eye system cybernetic, or be held. Either way, it allows you to use all items on your person that give you information (such as scanners, comm links, computers, and so on), though you cannot access any function that requires an attack roll or skill check other than Perception, or that forces a target to make a saving throw. However, whenever you use it to make Perception check that you cannot take 10 on, a natural 1 on the die is both an automatic failure, and randomly removes a device from sync.
Despite the glitchiness of GoTos, they remain extremely popular among the techneratti. Indeed there are advanced models that can cost hundreds or even thousands of credits more… and function exactly the same way (but with better style and branding). Some social scientists fear the constant use of GoTo devices is eroding person-to-person relationships on a number of worlds.

Adventure Seed: A new GoTo program, free-to-download, claims to fix de-syncing issues. It is actually a hybrid curse, that causes anyone who uses their GoTo for more than 8 hours in a row to become a borai, and after 8 more hours a ghoul.
Within a few days, entire cities may fall to this necromantic viral app.

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Starfinder HyperMall: Chromat

The HyperMall is an InfoSphere Commerce company that sells extremely cheap, but modestly useful, items in bulk to vending companies on worlds with Hyperspace travel. The HyperMall has literally hundreds of millions of items available for order, so many travelers enjoy downloading their virtual catalog and clicking through it on long, dull hyperspace trips.

HyperMall items are all Level 0 minor items that cost 1 credit (or you can buy 120 of them for 100 credits), and have negligible bulk unless noted otherwise. However, crafting any HyperMall item takes 10 UPBs… a fact that frustrates armchair economists and bespoke crafters. HyperMall items are not robust enough to have a major effect on gameplay. Essentially, none of these items have any Strength, damage, hardness, HP, or game-mechanical effect.

Chromat (Hybrid Item): A chromat is a short penlike object that functions as a 1-shot fashion redesign device. Using a chromat takes 10 minutes, and requires you have sole control of the item to be affected. The item selected must be something you could wear or carry. It’s style, symbology, and color scheme are altered to match your general style, in much the way weapons with weapon fusions are altered. You do not have precise control over the new style and coloration (though it generally matches your preferred style, or if you prefer any 1 item you already have personalized and is present). You cannot duplicate any specific uniform, symbol or gear using a chromat. Once used, a chromat is expended, and the purely-cosmetic changes to made to the item you used it on are permanent.

Adventure Seed: Someone is breaking into clothing stores and textile cleaning businesses, and using handfuls of chromats to alter items to look like they belong to a crazed nihilist cult. Local authorities are convinced this is a marketing stunt for a new holovid series or void-rock band, but regardless the businesses in question want the fashion-vandalism stopped.

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Starfinder HyperMall: Brimmerfloat

The HyperMall is an InfoSphere Commerce company that sells extremely cheap, but modestly useful, items in bulk to vending companies on worlds with Hyperspace travel. The HyperMall has literally hundreds of millions of items available for order, so many travelers enjoy downloading their virtual catalog and clicking through it on long, dull hyperspace trips.

HyperMall items are all Level 0 minor items that cost 1 credit (or you can buy 120 of them for 100 credits), and have negligible bulk unless noted otherwise. However, crafting any HyperMall item takes 10 UPBs… a fact that frustrates armchair economists and bespoke crafters. HyperMall items are not robust enough to have a major effect on gameplay. Essentially, none of these items have any Strength, damage, hardness, HP, or game-mechanical effect.

Brimmerfloat (Hybrid Item): A brimmerfloat is peaked circle of cloth with an enchantment giving it a very, very slight negative gravity and a tiny gyro in it’s wire outer circumference, causing it to float gently upwards using a built-in, nonchargeable microbattery. It can be tethered to the top of your head, turning into a hands-free umbrella. It’s not string enough to float upward when being hit by rain, but will remain level in typical rain, sitting atop wherever you clipped its tether. The process that allows it to resist gravity has only 8 hours of effectiveness, though its not used up when the cloth is folded up. After 8 hours of use, it’s just a thin piece of cloth. Brimmerfloats are most often sold by vending-drones at posts and travel terminals during rainy weather, for people arriving from less wet locations who didn’t think to bring a more permanent umbrella options.
Catalog Code: H01Br@!67F22P[p]678413YSK

Adventure Seed: One bimmerfloat has no game mechanical effect. But a fight in a warehouse with crates of tens of thousands of them could cause any missed attack to break open a crate to form clouds of slowly expanding, spinning, lifting umbrella-tops that may give concealment between different altitudes.

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Two More Off-The-Cuff Campaign Ideas

I didn’t expect to write more of these… but I guess that’s what makes them off-the-cuff. I envision both of these as likely Starfinder campaigns, but you could mold them to work however you like.

Armageddon Helix: While there are numerous theories about its creation, no one is sure what caused the Armageddon Helix, a 525-mile wide strip of alternate reality running in a spiral from pole to pole of the Earth. Within the Helix, technology became unpredictable, magic and psychic powers bloomed, monsters arose, aline ruins and mythic buildings burst up from the land itself, and destruction was wrought. Magic does not function outside the Helix, but many strange technologies do. However, those technologies require materials that only exist within the Helix.
Those within the Helix changed as well, becoming unable to survive outside of it, and becoming ill if the come within a few miles of its edge. Similarly, those from outside the Helix cannot live near or survive within the Helix. Of course, this makes travel much more difficult–going from Seattle to Boise is simple enough, as they are within the same Safeland strip, but the center of the country is within the Helix, and travel to the East coast requires travel up to the north pole, around the end of the Helix, and back down toward North America.
The exception to this are extremely rare Apocalypse Riders, 0.01% of the population who can move freely between the Safeland and the Apocalypse Helix. Apocalypse Riders are heavily recruited, to take emergency supplies and news into the Helix, to bring valuable HelixTech materials out, to hunt down criminal riders who operate on the borer where few can seek them out, and to explore ever-changing Helix Ruins in the hopes of understanding what brought about the Helix, and if it can be reversed or controlled. Between missions, Apocalypse Riders can live in relative comfort in the Safelands, going to restaurants, seeing movies, and sleeping in soft beds. But within the Helix, danger lurks around every corner.

Gjallarbrú Guard: There are many names for the river that separates the lands of the living from the lands of the dead. Regardless of its name, that river is crossed by an infinite number of massive bridges, each bridge a city wherein the work of the afterlife is carried out. One of these is Gjallarbrú, the Golden Hall.
Souls dwell here. Mostly those who expect to reach a Norse afterlife, but others two. Some know how they got here. Many don’t. A few don’t even believe they are dead.
In most cases, those souls eventually move on. Once they pay their obolgild, or finish their limbo-punishment, or clear up some paperwork. Some don’t ever go on to the afterlife. Others can’t. And a lot just need to work to earn the obolgild to do so… or steal it.
There are rules, too. Cosmic, immutable laws. And fiends and elder alien reality-warpers and astrally projected living necromancers and sleepwalking psychics and Miskatonic university professors keep stirring up trouble. And sometimes, a dead soul even gets killed.
You are one of the souls that can’t, or won’t, move on. And you are part of the city Guard. It’s your job to keep the peace. The Peace of the Already Dead.
Sometimes Guards come from Chinvat, the bridge-city upstream from Gjallarbrú, chasing escapees who floated down the Infinite River. Less often someone must go downriver to Hardos, the broken bridge city, for similar reasons. Rumors claim that Guards are sometimes sent more than one bridge away up or down the river, but if that’s true, you’ve never spoken to such people.

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Five Off-the-Cuff ttRPG Campaign Ideas

So, when I am making off-the-cuff descriptions of ttRPG ideas or campaigns to make a point, if I don’t just go with halfling battle-bakers, I usually throw together random elements as they come into my head, and just run with them without giving them any serious consideration.
And, to be honest, those ideas (from royal families of were-rats who now rule their empire from gilded sewers to campaigns set in the dying husk of the World Tree) tend to be pretty popular. Once my self-censor is off, sometimes good stuff comes.
So, here are five off-the-cuff campaign ideas I have done no prep or pre=-planning for. They may all suck… or one or two might spark a good idea for other people. 🙂

Recruits of Heroes’ Hall: Valgard is the Heroes’ Hall, the ultimate interdimensional base of operations for the Valorous Guard, the mythic and legendary champions of all reality.
Sadly, they are all dead. The Heroes’ Beacon, which lights up when societies throughout the multiverse need help, now goes unanswered.
But Valgard ITSELF is a living, thinking thing. And it wants new heroes. It does not care about their power level, or plane of origin. It’s going to select those it believes have the potential to be legendary, and bring them into itself.
Participation is not optional.
And after all, if you die, Valgard just brings you back to life… sometimes during the same fight.

Celestial Racers: The lights in the sky actually are the shining wheels of celestial chariots. They also control the destiny of mortals. So teams of worshipers are selected to compete in Celestial Races, with winners forming constellations that benefit their patron deity.

Sigils: Sigils are ancient marks of conceptual power which select those psychologically aligned to them. Being of a compatible sigils is more important than family, or ancestry, or culture. Most sigilkin have a minor, cantriplike power to call upon. But the great Sigil Scions can change the world, and those champions are empowered with energies far beyond their class or training.

Inkbound: New spells aren’t researched. Magic is not some academic pursuit you can master through study. No, new spells only occur when written ideas are exposed to enough danger, destiny, disease, and damnation that it becomes infused with eldritch meaning, and forms into a new, unique spell. Powerful wizards thus employ the poor, desperate, and criminally sentenced to become Inkbound, people with bodies covered in mystic symbol tattoos who are sent through the most horrific and dangerous quests imaginable, some specifically created to push Inkbound to the point where spells begin to manifest on their skin.

Boldly: The Crescent is a fragment of an ancient, galaxy-spanning civilization. Hundreds of miles long, it is a surviving part of a Dyson sphere that once held billions of civilizations. But now no one can control it. It has food, water, can sustain life at differing gravities and atmospheres effortlessly, and no one knows how. It also heals those on it so instantly injury or death are impossible, and teleports at random from civilized world to civilized world, with a huge digital hourglass telling all on it how long until it transits again… anywhere from an hour to a month.
Once you get on the Crescent you may live forever and see the galaxy… but chances are you can’t even find your way home.

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Worldbuilding with Proverbs

Whether it is because you need something for a character who is presented as wise to say (or to have written, so their wise book can be quoted), or want to represent common values in a fictional culture by showing what they hold as common advice, it can be useful to consider proverbs as an important part of worldbuilding.

Even homilies that are conceptually the same can carry some cool worldbuilding information. You might start with “Don’t complain about the crust on the bread that holds starvation at bay,” and decide it’s too negatively focused, or too plebian. “Vinegar slakes thirst as well as wine, but is much less commonly sipped” has a very similar core idea, but carries a very different nuance.

You can also add callbacks for proverbs. “A dull sword hurts more than a sharp word” is a perfectly reasonable proverb. But if one culture stops there, and a different one adds “But sharp words are more easily whispered behind your back,” it shows both that the two cultures have impact on one another, and that they have different core concerns.

You can go so far as to have proverbs that are clearly driven by political or religious control, rather than folk wisdom. The novel 1984 is a masterclass on this, and I can’t provide better examples than “Ignorance is Strength” and “Slavery is Freedom,” so I’ll just note adding a little George Orwell to your reading list can go a long way.

Of course, putting this theory into practice can also since you down a rabbit-hole of creating entire books of pithy things your different fictional cutlures say and talk about… none of which may ever come up in games you run or scenes you right. I find that kind of thing fun and useful as mental background, but not everyone has the time or inclination. Since many ttRPG-focused worldbuilders are just looking for some fun things to drop in their campaigns, rather than essays on theoretical ways they could spend more time thinking about things to spend time thinking about things, here’s a short list of proverbs you can add to your home game worldbuilding, or use as jumping-off points for creating your own.

“Cursing your wakefulness does not help you sleep.”

“That a tragedy could have been worse does not make it less a tragedy.”

“A novice who will defend you is of greater value than a master who won’t.”

“The fly does not care how complex the web is.”

“Starting a fight is bad, but tolerating an injustice is worse.”

“You need not be the one to build a bad bridge for its collapse to harm you.”

“It is fair to suspect your motives when you tell only one kind of truth, even without accusing you of falsehood.”

“Do not assume those who are paid to smile enjoy your company simply because they do as they are paid to.”

“To complain a cat’s meow is too loud, when the cock’s crow and dog’s bark go without comment, is to show your complaint is with cats, not noises.”

“Increasing the volume of your voice does not increase the wisdom of your words. But it may convey information about your anger.”

“Those blessed with lives that require no labor can most easily be dismissive of the value of work. But their figs still do not pick themselves.”

“We should not call them wise words because they come from someone accounted wise. We should account someone as wise if we find they have offered words with wisdom.”

“Platitudes cannot staunch bleeding, nor return what has been stolen.”

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Dungeons as a Location-Based Adventure Trope

This article is now a decade old. I never put it all in one place before, and it likely needs some updating with a decade of new thought. But for the moment, this is its current state, all in one place.

Dungeons as a Location-Based Adventure Trope

I am oft assaulted with cries about the unrealism of RPG “dungeons” when conversing with less chthonic game fans. Even ignoring the cognitive dissonance of claiming fireballs are fine but geographically isolated regions of high-danger that include mushrooms that can sustain an ecosystem are not, I think dungeons have gotten a bad rap because so many are run as nothing more than endless mazes of unconnected threats. There can be more to dungeons, and they can make for great gaming, full of as much (or as little) complex roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and exploration as a group wants, in addition to an opportunity to kill an orc and take his pie… assuming you have a justification for doing so you are happy with.

I prefer short, focused delves downward and thematically linked quarantine sites that happen to be isolated (though not necessarily underground) to monolithic puzzles of mega-corridors, but I think limited-access, PC-channeling adventure sites have a lot going for them and can be part of strong, logical narratives. While they are not “dungeons” in the penal sense, I believe lots of good stories use sites any good Dungeon Master can recognize as a place for wandering monsters, 10-foot poles, and trap checks. Often called “location-based adventures” by industry writers (because the action starts not as a result of machinations behind the scenes or carefully timed events the PCs need to be present at a specific time and place to witness, but as a result of the PCs just showing up at the dangerous location), “dungeon-style” storylines are actually quite common in adventure prose and movies.

So this is a talk about places that serve as dungeons in movies and books, and how similar settings may be useful for fantasy RPG GMs. Since moving pictures are worth 1,000 blog posts to support the case for these dungeons I reference a lot of movies.

The Usefulness of Dungeons

A big part of the usefulness of “dungeons” as adventuring sites is their natural pressures and restrictions on the actions of the players. There are a few tendencies common to modern people than many gamers fall back on, which make perfect sense in the real world, but aren’t much fun from the point of view of adventure RPG sessions. The biggest two adventure-killing “reasonable” tactics I’ve encountered over 40 years of gaming are calling for help, and falling back.

As a modern society, we are trained to call for help. Our phone systems have special numbers that let us call for help quickly, alarms on homes and cars and even smart phones are designed to make calling for help more effective. Even the foam-weapon LARP groups I’ve been involved with insist players carry a whistle with them so if they fall and hurt themselves, they can easily call for help. But calling for help isn’t nearly as much fun for players in an RPG, even when it might make sense. If the PCs are young heroes working for the powerful wizard El Magister, or the politically savvy dragon Doneitagain, or whoever, it may well make sense from the character’s point of view to call for help when they get in over their heads. After all, if their patron is a powerful being and it’s sent them on an important mission, surely it’s better to call for back-up than fail, right?

Falling back is a similar issue, and it leads into the resource-management issue often known as the “15 Minute Adventuring Day.” A lot of RPGs balance powerful abilities by limiting how often they can be used. Different players may well have a different mix of moderate powers they can use a lot vs powerful abilities they can use more rarely. As a result, players often want to use their very best abilities in the first few encounters they run into each day, then stop and wait for their best powers to regenerate. While that’s good tactics from the characters’ point of view, and there are plot-based ways to avoid players doing it all the time (like having a mission be set against a ticking clock), allowing players to use it as their default tactic can skew balance between characters, and make it difficult for a GM to run anything but maximum-risk encounters without the players treating everything as a cake-walk.

Dungeons can help with both of these behaviors. By putting PCs somewhere inherently dangerous and far away from “safe” civilization, the GM encourages players to deal with problems themselves (since help is too far away to reasonably call for), and can push players to pace resources (since even if they stop after a few encounters, there’s no guarantee their resting place will be safe if they can’t get out of the dungeon easily), and may even be able to reward them for pushing on (if genuinely safe locations to rest exist – but are spaced several encounters apart). Dungeons don’t make the “modern” behaviors impossible, but they do change the strategic dynamic to make them less common, and do so in a way most players find intuitively understandable.

So, let’s look at some types of “dungeons.”

Cities and Prisons As Dungeons
A dungeon is someplace just beyond, or maybe under, the city, right? Well, not necessarily. If we look at our game-design definition, we find that some cities of fiction qualify as dungeons in themselves, regardless of what lies beyond them.

My favorite example of this is the City of Lost Children (from the movie, The City of Lost Children). Not only is this a great-looking locale oozing with color that, if well described, could keep players enraptured regardless of the plot, it’s a wonderful set-up. The City is an actual prison, a place where the inhabitants cannot escape. Ruled by a mad scientist and patrolled by his golems, the City has traps, oddities, and a “thieves guild” run by an octopus. And a man-mountain of a hero must find his way through all of it on a rescue mission, which isn’t the most typical RPG dungeon plot, and even if it was done this way it would feel fresh again.

New York City from Escape From New York is another good example of the urban-prison-as-a-dungeon, and perhaps unsurprisingly it also focuses on a rescue mission. The interesting thing here is that it basically shows what happens if the Thieves Guild is the also the local government, and there’s very little in this movie that couldn’t easily be transferred to a fantasy RPG. The movie has an alchemist, a warlord, and a treasure map (though the treasure here is freedom rather than gold). It would take very little effort to blend these concepts with more fantasy-oriented ones to create an island or peninsula penitentiary, possibly borrowing elements from the pirate city in Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End. A prince’s yacht crashes on the island and he’s grabbed by the inmates, just days before he’s needed for a treaty-by-marriage…

The 2008 movie Doomsday (the one with Rhona Mitra) is a similar set-up, although in this case it treats an entire countryside as the dungeon, and rather than rescue an individual person it’s a more traditional grab-the-MacGuffin mission. The plot itself could replace the object to be grabbed with anything (lost holy symbol, legendary book, a rare herb needed for a cure that only grows in the cursed land of the mad men), and it’d be easy to replace the Mad Max savages with zombies, or insane cultists (to borrow a bit of In The Mouth of Madness to add to the mix).

Though more noir than fantasy, 1998’s Dark City is absolutely another great example of a city-as-dungeon, with the added twist that characters aren’t initially aware they are in a dungeon. That same idea is shown in a very different light in the original Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” Arguably, even the apparent fake world of The Matrix is little more than a digital dungeon, which is interesting given how the whole rest of the “real” world in those movies come closer to a traditional underground dungeon, albeit ones so big you can fly airships through them.

There are more examples, but those are enough to make the point. So, what are the advantages of the city-as-a-dungeon setting for a GM?

First, if a game group includes an urban-focused character, this kind of setting allows his skills to shine without requiring everyone else to act like they’re in a city. Some game groups just don’t take well to “civilization,” with characters getting into fights with the guards and wanting to clear out an inn like they would a stirge nest. Other groups perfectly well can run their characters appropriately… but may not want to. Sometimes the whole point of playing a barbarian is to be able to rage and kill something, and “dungeon cities” allow characters to worry less about the repercussions of being anti-social.

Additionally, dungeon cities are a good change of scenery for GMs who want to adapt a traditional dungeon adventure and disguise its origins. Many traditional “dungeons” are more like cities anyway (with different monsters taking up residence in different sections, and often whole tribes living within them), and the ecological questions that bother many people when a group of 200 kobolds lives in a barren cavern just don’t apply when the “dungeon” is turned into an entire valley that was quarantined years ago by blocking the one pass out. Some published adventures actually make more sense in an Escape From New York scenario than in the Mines of Moria. Remapping 10×10 rooms to 10×10 shacks isn’t difficult, and the open nature of a city can give the PCs more room to explore (and explain why the kobold guards in encounter 12 don’t hear the PCs kill the ones in Encounter 11, if you have the encounters now be in different sections of a largely abandoned township instead of 30 feet down a corridor).

It can also be a potential answer to the question of why going into someone else’s home and killing them to take their stuff is “adventuring” rather than “murderous colonization.” If the penal-city-as-dungeon is a prison for offenders so violent they cannot be kept anyplace else, the GM can reasonably have them attack PCs on sight (and any prisoners who don’t do so immediately suggest maybe they should be talked to). If the PCs are sent in to save someone who has been captured and is being threatened (again, Escape from new York), they have a better justification than greed for undertaking their adventure.

Of course, this can also skew rapidly into touching on real-world prison injustices, which isn’t any better. It’s always worth asking yourself if, seen objectively by an outsider, the actions of the PCs are heroic, or monstrously criminal. I’m not telling you how to run you games, but it’s good to be aware what your themes are really saying before you put a lot of work into fleshing them out.

If the dungeon city isn’t destroyed by the adventurers, a prison colony is obviously re-stocked as its parent empire convicts more criminals. If the GM wants to re-use his maps and do a “Return To” kind of adventure, all is needed is enough time to pass for a new wave of convicts to be thrown over the wall/across the river/down the road into the prison/quarantine/exiled land.

Dungeon cities also give some interesting options for development later. If a villain met within the city later escapes, he might come hunting for the PCs. Or a GM could borrow a page from Dune’s Sardaukar (troops who are renowned for being the toughest in the universe because they come from a prison planet) and either put the PCs up against an army drawn from a dungeon city they once explored, or face the PCs with a threat so severe only an army of the dungeon city’s prisoners can oppose it.

In short while the advantages of a simple location-based adventure remain intact, a dungeon city changes the setting, and allows for development options lacking in more subterranean options.

Sudden Dungeons

One interesting variant of the dungeon adventures travel into intentionally, is the dungeon that grows up around them without warning, so entry into the dungeon adventure is sudden rather than pre-planned by the PCs. In some cases, the GM can get characters to happily put themselves someplace isolated, and then have it turn into a deathtrap after their arrival. This trick needs to be used sparingly (because otherwise PCs refuse to go anywhere, or at least treat every trip as a possible fight to the death and slow down play with endless, needless precautions), but as a change of pace this can be a good surprise.

A good example of this kind of “sudden dungeon” is the airplane from Snakes on a Plane. Actually most movies that take place on an airplane treat it as a dungeon, but this is the one with the most obvious examples of wandering monsters, coupled with a surprising number of traps and environmental hazards. (Flight of the Living Dead is another good example… if you happen to be a fan of very cheesy zombie movies). The most interesting part of this from an adventure-design point of view is that in neither case did the protagonists expect to be entering a dungeon – the nature of their situation evolved – but was aware that a threat existed (a transported prisoner needed to be guarded). This helps players not feel blindsided – they should have prepared for a fight or trap in any case – but changes the kind of threat they face.

Similar events make the ships in Titanic and Deep Rising sudden dungeons… though I prefer the monsters in Deep Rising (and it’s another example of character who knew some sort of danger was to be involved, just not that they were about to be in a constant running fight in a sinking ship with bloodthirsty mercenaries). These movies also all have the theme of turning a convenience (mass transit) into a drawback (things go wrong too far from civilization to get help). They obviously work best as very short-term adventures, but dungeons that are short as five rooms can be compelling single nights of fun.

A different take on the sudden dungeon is the movie (and the video games) Silent Hill. Here a trip to an area believed to be at most moderately dangerous (an abandoned town) becomes a sudden dungeon when it is revealed there is a hellish, nightmare-world version of the same place and characters can be stuck there. Again, a trick like this can’t be pulled too often, but it’s easy to see how characters in an archeological dig, or exploring a ghost town, or trekking through a well-traveled and safe forest could accidentally release something that changed the environment for the suddenly, dungeonastically worse. If a GM does want to use this trick more than once, it can be tied to an ongoing villain (what is Freddy Krugar from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies but a ghost who can turn your dreams into dungeon nightmares?) If combined with the dungeon city from yesterday, you get The Mist, or The Fog, or even Dawn of the Dead.

And of course anyplace you can be stranded can count as a sudden dungeon. While characters knew they were going someplace dangerous in Kong: Skull Island, they didn’t know they were going to be trapped there with dangerous the like of which they had never encountered before. How weird a place you are stranded is can have a huge impact on the tone of the adventure, of course. There’s not initially a lot of difference between the set up of “Gilligan’s Island” and “LOST,” but both how characters deal with weird situations, and what is treated as “normal” end up having huge implications for the feel of each setting.

A place that you go to willingly, but then get stuck in because it is not as you expected, can also make for a great sudden dungeon. Haunted houses are good examples of this. The characters in 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill expected they could leave at their leisure, and were surprised when the houses turned into location based adventures. Of course, most RPG players are canny enough to see the signs of a haunting when they hear the set-up. Even so, there’s nothing wrong with letting player prepare a bit for sudden dungeons, and letting them see one or two coming may well just set the stage for surprising them alter. And not all hauntings take place in houses. PCs going to a friendly temple might discover it had been taken over by an evil cult, who unleashed demons and hellscapes just as the players arrived (perhaps doing so intentionally to trap the heroes). Or an invitation to a party at a local inn to celebrate its 100th anniversary might go south when it turns out it was built on the unmarked grave of a mass-murderer, and his spirit is accidentally also invited to the party. Even tropes players have seen a hundred times can be a surprise if the GM changes a few details.

And once the PCs are in a sudden dungeon, it doesn’t matter if they recognize it. It’s too late.

Dungeons Without Walls

In many cases, it’s possible to set up an adventure with all the good elements we’ve discussed from various dungeons, but do it without having any specific structure or location serve to cause those constraints. While in many ways this looks like the dungeon city or sudden dungeon, it’s different in a few core ways. For example, normally the dungeon without walls is an event (possibly a curse), and the reason player’s can’t “escape” it is more metaphysical than geographical. Similarly they can’t usefully call for help or fall back and wait to power-up because the nature of the encounters they are facing prevents aid or safety from beign effective, rather than because it can’t be attempted.

The best cinematic example I know of for the dungeon without walls is the Game from the original Jumanji movie. It’s all random encounters, and it requires an artifact of major mojo to pull off, but it forces the heroes to go from event to event, and gets to ignore pesky details like the food chain or why encounter 5 doesn’t eat encounter 9 before the protagonists show up. And the end goal is always clearly visible, though you can’t be sure how long it’ll take to get there. If the Game is considered an artifact (anything from a holy relic from a god of adventure or gambling to an actual physical representation of the epic journey, compressed into a specific recreated experience) the issue for the PCs isn’t that they can’t hire a sage or ask a patron for help, but that those allies just aren’t able to suggest anything helpful other than to finish the experience. It’s the trope of “the best way out is through,” which is common in adventure fiction if not normally this blatant.

As an aside, the follow-up movie Zathura, and the two 2000s-era Jumanji movies, are less dungeons without walls, and more sudden dungeons. The distinction here is that in the original Jumanji, the characters have access to their town, friends, shops, and so on. In Zathura, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Jumanji: The Next Level, the characters are wished away and cut off from their normal support options.

Some curse/haunting movies can also be treated as dungeons without walls. The thing to look for is an event that gives the character an opportunity to fight back (so something like Thinner doesn’t really qualify, since the main character was doomed from the get-go, or if salvation was possible it would require an act of penance, rather than an ass-kicking), but no external force can usefully help and there’s no good way to hide from the event. The Final Destination series are fairly good examples of this, as is It Follows. The characters affected have action-based encounters coming at them, but may be able to survive if they make the right deeds. (As with a lot of plots from horror stories, the GM should make sure the threats are actually fair but the core concept is easily reused).

Even more than the sudden dungeon, the inevitable and unstoppable nature of the dungeon without walls should be used sparingly. Indeed, it may work best if characters are given some idea what they are facing and allowed to choose such a fate rather than have it thrust upon them. Perhaps a goddess of fate grants rewards to those who accept the challenge of an interesting life during her holy month, or a town’s curse can only be lifted if a band of heroes face a gauntlet of threats dreamed up by the ghosts who died in a flood early in the town’s history. Once the heroes have decided to have a rough month, they’ll be less annoyed at the GM if they can’t get out of it the easy way.

Traditional Dungeons

So, what about traditional dungeons? Are there no good or interesting examples of subterranean complexes with dangerous dwellers and valuable goods? Of course there are… and their place (and function) within their respective stories can be a good guide on how to add dungeons to a campaign without shoehorning them or making them the sole focus of a fantasy setting.

So without further ado, let’s look at some movie dungeons!

The Lair of Vermithrax Pejorative (Dragonslayer)
The fiery lair of the dragon in Dragonslayer has elements to be seen in many RPG dungeons that came after – alters for live sacrifice, hordes of smaller threats, strange terrain (the burning water), caverns with tactically interesting ledges and, of course, a dragon. Given this movie came out in 1981 it clearly is not the origin of the Dungeons and Dragons  RPG (despite having both), but it’s fair to say it was an influence for years. Of course those elements are far from the only things fantasy RPGs borrow from this movie (though interestingly it’s the spear and shield seen most often, not the d8 of magic power or ash of archmage summoning – so style over substance began early).

This cavern lair sets the stage for the End Boss Fight, which is a pretty typical use for a dragon’s lair in dungeon construction. However in many dungeon rpg adventures, the dragon’s lair is just the last in a series of caves full of monsters, and that can take away from the impact of creeping into a monster’s lair. Because the rest of the adventure takes place out in the open, the scenes where our heroes sneak into Vermithrax Pejorative’s home clearly mark a raising of the stakes, and the approach of a major confrontation. If a GM’s players seem to be getting bored with dungeon stomping, it may be time to take a page from this movie and adventure outside for a while, returning to cavern settings just for the final conflict.

The Labyrinth (Labyrinth)
Okay, it’s a well-known truism in fantasy rpg adventure design that mazes make for bad adventure settings. This is only true if the PCs are asked to map every T-intersection, 45-degree angel and grant colonnade. If instead the maze is a setting, a vast country filled with its own people, threats and odd encounters and the GM gets the players from scene to scene with no need for hours of dull mapping, Labyrinth shows how to keep the maze as interesting as it was when Theseus was first asked to be delivery food.

Interestingly in this case the labyrinth is not the heroine’s destination, or the setting for the final conflict. She’s trying to get through the maze to the castle on the far side. I rarely see the dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed in adventure design, but it’s one of its most obvious uses. Instead of being something to be searched, room by room, and cleared, the dungeon becomes no different from any other difficult terrain, and the goal is to cross it as quickly (and as little resistence) as possible.

Chinatown Beneath (Big Trouble in Little China)
From a secret door in a wizard’s domicile to random monster encounters (“It will come out no more!”) to mysterious substances (Black Blood of the Earth), trapped elevators, sewer connections, a hidden underground temple, mounds of dead fish, and a floating eye-monster spy, this dungeon setting has it all. It’s also one of the few examples where the heroes are in-and-out of the same subterranean complex more than once, which lends itself well to the way most PCs tackle big warrens of evil.

This is another example of the dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed, but in this case it’s explicitly a back-door. Making a dungeon optional is a great way to provide players the chance to choose it if they’re in the mood, and avoid it if they’re not. And if the up-side of the dungeon route is that it’s so dangerous no one in their right mind would take it (thus ensuring the villains won’t see the heroes coming), the GM has carte blanc to make the challenges within much more dangerous than if the PCs felt they had no other adventure options open to them.

Caverns of the Wendol (The 13th Warrior)
Announced with a boldly asked question – “Is there a cave?!” – the caverns of the Wendol savages from The 13th Warrior begin a running battle that uses more stealth than many cinematic dungeon-stomps. From sneaking past (and/or assassinating) guards to the boss-monster fight with the Mother of the Wendol to the “secret escape” through underwater passages, this is a tightly focused, high-speed dungeon that isn’t emulated enough in many RPG campaigns. It’s similar to the Final Boss Fight, except it specifically isn’t final. In this case the characters are intentionally making a raid, trying to kill one or two specific foes in a complex they know has too many foes to clear out entirely.

The Tombs (Mummy movie series)
Raiding a tomb with traps, undead, and opposing forces of adventurers may seem a pretty RPG-specific idea for a story, but it’s pretty close to the broad plot of all the movies in the modern Mummy movie series, especially the 1999 movie and the most recent The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The important thing to take away is that while the action often begins and ends within the dungeons of these movies, it runs through a lot of other settings as well. If a GM ever needs inspiration on how to bring more city-based and travel encounters to a dungeonocentric plot, these movies can provide some great idea-fodder.

The Mountain of Power (Conan the Barbarian, 1982)
Similarly, the Mountain of Power, stronghold of Thulsa Doom, is another great example of a dungeon raid. Given how popular D&D was with young teen boys in 1982, the orgy scene in this movie may have been a hit with that segment of the RPG crowd more for bare breasts than the thematic conflict of free-spirited freebooter mercenaries against a totalitarian cult regime of nihilistic excess. But it’s still great music, a great fight, and a great dungeon. Unlike the dungeon raid in The 13th Warrior the goal is an extraction (of a hostage that turns out to be hostile), but the objective remains to get it, get one thing done, and get out quickly.

Moria (LotR: Fellowship of the Rings)
I often think of this as THE dungeon, because I suspect it’s literary counterpart is the origin of dungeons in RPGs. In addition to good backstory, a strong story reason for entering, a mystically locked door, hoards of goblins and a mysterious follower, Minas Tirath gives us the Balrog, one of the all-time great Boss Monsters. This entry is also a stand-in for all the subterranean adventure sites in the Lord of the Rings movies, from the caves of Helm’s Deep to Shelob’s lair.

Lord of the Rings is filled with dungeons, and each serves a specific plot need on top of being a great adventure setting. While Moria itself is a dungeon-as-an-obstacle-to-be-crossed, and Shelob’s lair is the backdoor version of the same idea, their main value to GMs are as examples of how to work dungeons into a bigger plot. Instead of having all of the major encounters of the adventure take place in dungeons, Lord of the Rings uses them as interesting set-pieces. This kind of focused dungeon expedition is often actually more exciting than clearing out rook after room of monsters and traps. In many ways rather than stacking different lairs of dungeon atop one another, this set-up scatters those lairs into different locations. One big advantage of this is that a GM can foreshadow how dangerous the latter dungeon levels are, watching players declare :One does not simply walk into Mordor,” well aware that by the time the campaign comes to a close, they’ll have done exactly that.

Other Dungeons

While they can be placed into the categories above, I think there are a few additional cinematic examples of dungeons that are worth discussing briefly.

LV-426, from Aliens. Yes, it’s a science fiction setting, but the overrun colonial habitats (and alien hive) certainly qualify as a dungeon by RPG standards. The heroes must search it, avoid being ambushed, rescue prisoners, fight monsters, and find the end Boss Monster. And it’s not hard to envision fiendish ants or otherworldly horrors replacing xenomorphs, or knights and wizards standing in for marines and pulse guns.

Every other movie in this series includes at least one locale that counts too, but I think Aliens has the most adventurous take on the theme

The apartment building from the Rec and Quarantine lines of movies. If I’ll allow sci-fi, there’s no reason I wouldn’t look to horror for good dungeons, and this one (in either the American remake or the original movie) is great. One of the nice touches is that when the characters enter it, they have no idea it’s going to become a sealed-off, tightly-cramped series of rooms with monsters in them. And the story sets up a three-tiered threat: zombies, whatever is turning people into zombies, and the local authorities that won’t let the protagonists out – a great way to keep a dungeon from feeling like reheated subterranean leftovers.

Okay, that’s the end of my quick run-down of dungeons from the movies, and while I skipped the Circus from Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy as the modern dungeon and Hogwarts as the friendly dungeon, I’ve still hit most of my favorites

What noteworthy dungeons from cinema and pop culture do you think I’ve missed?

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ShadowFinder Campaign Sketch

ShadowFinder is a concept for a Modern Urban Fantasy setting using heavily-modified Starfinder.

The idea behind ShadowFinder is that there used to be magic in our world, but it went away when the Gods of Old Egypt left to go a place Beyond. Then there was no magic to speak of, until a group of mystic champions arrived in Siberia during WWI to kill Rasputin, and accidentally left a few magic devices behind.

Now it’s the Modern era, and magic is common enough that most governments and many international organizations have at least one department that knows about it, and as needed deals with it. But the greatest protection a mundane creature can have is to believe magic does not exist, and so these in-the-know groups are literally protecting the world by keeping magic a secret. Further, just as vampires cannot be seen in mirror, they (and all magic effects and creatures) cannot clearly be recorded or sensed by any camera, film, or recording device, but are vulnerable to atomic weapons. So magic threats tend to try to stay out of sight, so they don’t force the whole world to grapple with their existence and potentially over-react with devastating power.

Both sides work to keep magic in the Shadows, and to find sources, allies, threats, and lost relics in those shadows to bolster their own side in a never-ending was keep just out of sight.

(Art by grandfailure)

Classes would be drawn from various sources. Soldiers and operative from the core rulebook, certainly, with little change. Likely mechanics, but with neither drones nor exo-cortexes as common options, replaced with some other variable class feature. No solarions or vanguards at all, but maybe sword saints. Warlocks and witches seem more appropriate than mystics or technomancers, though it’d be a shame to not have some kind of modern-device-focused spellcasters — again variant classes might do the trick. Biohackers are out, witchwarpers likely in. The precog is a definite maybe, depending on how it turns out.

Weapons would scale differently, with an equipment list that didn’t assume you got higher- and higher-level weapons, but instead use weapon damage benchmarks to scale up the damage a character does as they gain levels, allowing things like pistols, shotguns, and rifles to retain utility even at extremely high levels.

In a standard characters would at least initially be part of one of the groups that monitor, track, and if needed neutralize supernatural threats, and action would primarily take place in wilderness areas, abandoned towns, lonely highways, and defunct sewers, basements, and subway lines. As players got used to how the ShadowFinder world worked, some scenes might burst into the bright light of day, only to be misconstrued by the public (and maybe even misremembered by witnesses) as gas main explosions, terrorist attacks, or herds of feral hogs.

Plots could include locking down viral zombie outbreaks before they turn into zombie apocalypses, retrieving the book that got moved to a university’s accessible library that is bring people’s nightmares to life, undead serial killers that haunt campgrounds, tracking down wererat colonies that are feeding on the homeless, rescuing student filmmakers from nighthags in the woods, capturing souls that have escaped hell, slaying evil clown demons, and racing against time to beat cultists to the artifacts of power in the bottom of dungeons built in the ancient era to prevent them from falling into mortal hands. Along the way other weirdnesses might be encounters, such as cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers, giant alligators in the sewers, giant cockroaches mimicking humans, and genetically engineered giant spiders.

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KOLONY – A Campaign Framework

“KOLONY” is a campaign framework for Starfinder, and any other rpg you care to adapt it to.

Matter, it turns out, simply cannot exceed the speed of light. However, a sufficiently advanced civilization can rotate artificial wormholes around one another in order to transmit data at vastly greater speeds. This being the case, with only data able to leap between stars in less than centuries, it might be thought that interstellar empires and hostile takeovers of alien worlds are impossible.

It might be thought… but it’s not true.

In 2047, the first transmissions from the Kastellan Collective were received from an artificial wormhole array in orbit of Mars. Though there was a delay averaging from 5 to 20 minutes for signals to move back and forth from the Martian Orbital Wormhole Array (MOWA) to Earth, there appeared to be essentially NO delay from MOWA to wherever the Kastellan Collective is. The Kastellanians claimed with was due to ftl communication, though numerous theories suggest that in truth some intelligence, real or artificial, is physically present at the MOWA.

It doesn’t really matter.

Though unable to physically affect Earth at all, the Kastellians immediately set about being power brokers and empire builders. They could focus MOWA transmissions so tightly that only one receiver on Earth would pick it up. They began making promises, cutting deals, and handing out schematics for advanced technology as their currency of choice. Strong AI. Antigravity. Cold fusion. Genetic engineering. Cloning. Quantum flux manipulation so amazing that to a casual observer, it is indistinguishable from magic.

Major corporations, world governments, and various individuals the Kastellians found useful suddenly had vast knowledge, science, and power. And as long as they did what the Kastellians wanted, they got more. The “Kaste System” quickly went into effect, with those willing to vote for politicians who promised to abolish local government and law in favor for the miracles of the Kastellan Collective getting the best of everything, while everyone else was a second-class citizen almost overnight.

A generation has passed. Upper Kaste humans claim they are still the ruling class, that the Earth is still a Human world for Human habitation.

But it’s a lie.

(Art by grandfailure)

Genetic modification has created dozens of substrains of humans, built to Kastellan specifications. Lashunata. Shirren. Vesk. Ysoki. Kasatha. Brethedans. Genetically still 95% or more human, but so clearly designed for something else. Many are Upper Kaste… but some show more loyalty to their ancestors than theowners of their breeding tubes.

The world is being molded to suite the Kastellians, who claim they’ll send just a few observers, via cryosleep, who will arrive in 5,000 years. Nothing to worry about…

But already Earth culture is being wiped out and replaced by the Kaste. Cemeteries are dug up and the remains and artifacts scanned, so data about them can be sent via MOWA to curious Kastellians… and are often scanned at a molecular level which destroys the original. As Kastellian language and ethics and art begins to dominate culture, old Earth languages and art is lost, and sometimes outlawed. The United Nations is a pale vestige of Human power. Even where they should be contrained by local law, those who call themselves Kaste look down on anyone who does not serve and swear allegiance to the Kastellian way of life. Robotic soldiers and overseers built to Kastellian specifications control more of the streets, and answer only to commands from MOWA.

Sure, the air has begun to smell acrid, but the water is safe. Yes, most of the world’s power is taken up running calculations on Kate computers designed and built for the Kastellians, which spit out answers to the MOWA without any Human ever even knowing what the question was. But that’s a small price to pay for progress, isn’t it? Who cares if we are slowly losing what it means to be human, since we have androids, regeneration machines, and 100,000 years of Kastellian art to catch up on.

And yes, of course, now other interstellar powers have begun to make inroads. The Mygus offer alternatives to Kastellian service… for those who swear obedience to the Mygus. The Chardalos are happy to give even greater scientific advances, in return for human minds to be digitized into pure data and send through their own Wormhole Array to power Chardalos machines. The Favirzon just want to encourage rebels to damage and slow Kastellian servants, especially upper Kaste.

It’s 2080. Alien collaborators control every major nation, and to one degree or another ever big city, major corporation, and even most churches. The idea of humanity, and every art, culture, philosophy, and language of terrestrial origin is at risk of being wiped out. And anyone who doesn’t bow to one or more interstellar information empire is seen as a second-class citizen at best, and a savage or even vermin at worse.

And you?

You realize there’s not much time left to save the Earth from being nothing more than an alien Kolony.

(Art by Melkor)

Resist. Preserve. Rebel.

Kolony is a game of conflict against an alien culture that has opted to consume and reshape Earth to match its own wants and desires. None of those aliens are physically present, but enough Terrans have chosen to become Kaste that they have the upper hand. No one is you enemy because of the species they were born into, or even the nation they hail from. Instead, you oppose members of the various Kaste because of the choices they have made, to prioritize gaining the wealth of alien tech and data at the cost of selling out everyone else on the planet. The Kaste all know that eventually there will be nothing left of humans but museum exhibits, but as long as that happens after their own long life spans, they don’t care.

You do.

As a Starfinder campaign, all magic is presented as quantum manipulation, a form of technology so advanced that even the Kaste who use it don’t understand it. Most regions have laws restricting such quantum tech to approved Kaste members – no one else can legally use any spell, spell-like ability, supernatural ability, or magic or hybrid item. Of course, as rebels, the players are likely to flaunt such rules, but must do so cautiously. Casting a spell while in disguise raiding a datacenter is one thing—it’s worth the risk to prevent people’s minds from being digitized so they can serve as virtual assistants in some distant system, or ancestral relics be put behind paywalls so only Kastellian virtual tours can see them. But in day-to-day life, such displays will bring visits from the automated Patent Police, or Kaste Commissars.

(Art by Kit8 D.O.O.)

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I have a Patreon. It supports the time I take to do all my blog posts, but especially longer and more experimental ones like this. If you’d like to see more game-bending rule options (or more fiction, game industry essays, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!